Climbing The Hill

Exemplifying Substantive and Disciplinary Knowledge
Categories: Leadership Learning, Curriculum Design

Exemplifying Substantive and Disciplinary Knowledge

It was great to spend time with Barnsley headteachers this week.  It underlined the challenges schools face to ensure a school curriculum reflects community needs and context.  Polarising curriculum design as a binary choice between knowledge and broader skills puts emphasis of learning in the wrong place.  As outlined in the recent blog published here, we need both.  

The belief that certain bodies of academic knowledge have greater significance places value and currency on a certain type of curriculum.  This is largely based on the education preferences of the policy wonks who believe education should reflect their own experiences. This displaces the true purpose of education in a modern, diverse society away from it’s fundamental ambition: to ensure students make sense of an increasingly complex world.  Our starting point for curriculum design should be ‘whose curriculum?’  and ‘what knowledge skills and attributes’ do our students require in order to thrive?  (adapted from Mark Priestly). 

Our communities need young people who have deep agency with learning, connect learning to application, want to make a difference and use the knowledge they have acquired wisely.  I have included some critical thinking prompts developed by the Inspire Partnership to support teachers in planning for this:Slide13


A high quality curriculum ensures pupils learn both the substantive knowledge required to connect prior learning with new, as well as the disciplinary knowledge which leads to pupils connecting learning between subject domains.  Slide01

Take the example of key stage two writing below. It exemplifies substantive knowledge - the subject specific knowledge required to demonstrate an understanding of the historical content within the curriculum.  This includes, accurate use of subject specific vocabulary and factual accuracy.  However, what sets it apart is the addition of disciplinary knowledge woven into the first-person recount ensuring the indirect relationship between knowledge and interpretation lead to control of argument and a deeper sense of understanding.  Examples include precise language use such as “we are not at liberty to divulge” and “it would be a great risk and will be advantageous for the opposition.”  


A useful exercise for leadership teams would be to look for evidence where learning exemplifies both the substantive and disciplinary knowledge.  (See examples below).  Often, when combined the blend can lead to greater depth, justifying the view that both substantive knowledge and disciplinary knowledge are essential.  This can be evidenced through: 

  • Using disciplinary knowledge to substantiate a view point.
  • Forming relationships with knowledge and using this to exemplfy own learning. 
  • Learning has human significance so it’s relevant to the future decisions and the active contribution our children can make to the world.  
  • Discussion, debate, communication, creativity and critical thinking skills are all valuable currency.
  • Pupils reflect, explain, justify, question and evaluate knowledge. 
  • The focus of learning is on depth of understanding and not coverage. 

Slide18 copy 3

Slide04 copyIn planning for the balance between substantive and disciplinary knowledge, there are some useful questions for schools to consider.  These are adapted from Christine Counsell:

  • How do you balance ‘disciplinary’ and ‘substantive’ learning?
  • How does choice of content and deliberate planning play in securing disciplinary goals? 
  • How should I expect to see disciplinary knowledge manifested within sequences /at the end of this sequence/ in two months’ time/ in two years’ time? 
  • How do you intend disciplinary and substantive to support each other in this lesson sequence?    

Strategies for getting this balance right are shared below:

  1. Design learning sequences which plan for both substantive and disciplinary knowledgeSlide02
  2. Exploiting opportunities to draw on inter-disciplinary (cross curricular) learning where the disciplinary knowledge provides a context for deeper learningSlide17 copy
  3. Ensuring pupils are taught how to apply the correct vocabulary in order to master substantive knowledge within a given domain of learningSlide08
  4. Provide multiple opportunities for pupils to review and reflect on learning successes and next stepsSlide10Slide12 copy
  5. Giving the right kind of feedback.  Provocative prompt feedback will more likely challenge pupils to justify viewpoints, drawing on a range of evidence whereas the reminding prompt feedback will focus on procedural fluencySlide07
  6. Careful selection of curriculum context interrupts thinking and challenges pupils to think more criticallySlide15Slide11
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